The kinds of information Google displays on their results seem to get more interesting and complicated. Recently an SEO specialist I work with, Ana Diaz, saw something interesting. A number of travel queries came with a map, with a route, distance and travel time displayed. Like the special dates details seen last month, there was not much either on Google’s blogs or elsewhere online about this.
While it seems that adding this information to the main search results is a new thing from Google, displaying this kind of information isn’t much of a departure for the search engine. Google Now, available on Android, provides the same kind of information automatically based on your location and time of day. Google Maps has also provided this kind of information for a few years now, and has even been providing their traffic data via API.
Understanding the Query
Unfortunately, as cool as this new kind of result is, it is easily confused. The map with travel details does not display consistently across a number of queries. While it will show for “St Lucia to Newstead” and “St Lucia from Newstead” (two Brisbane suburbs) it won’t for “Drive from St Lucia to Newstead” or “Travel to St Lucia from Newstead”. It won’t support more than two destinations in a sequence either. For now, it appears to only be able to return a result for “location” “direction” “location”. It will also accept other qualifying location terms like “St Lucia to Newstead Brisbane” or “St Lucia from Newstead Australia”. Just like the fields available in Google Maps.
It is interesting how closely the queries used in Google’s main search need to match to the format seen in Google Maps. It seems to indicate that this feature is not as closely integrated with Google’s search as you would expect.
As cool as it is, there are a number of ways this tool seems to fail. A search for “Ascot to Manly” won’t return a map, which isn’t surprising as a number of cities have suburbs with these names. Adding a location qualifier like “Ascot to Manly Brisbane” doesn’t help, nor does the fact that Google is pretty certain I am in Brisbane, QLD. However it will work with “Surry Hills to Paddington”, although there are suburbs called Paddington in both Sydney and Brisbane.
How good is it really?
Travel time and distance results in Google’s main search results are interesting, and they do appear to be new. When they work, they are useful, and it does not appear to be using any information that they have not had for a while, or used in the same way elsewhere. It is interesting how sensitive to query structure this feature is, especially given how good Google usually is with poorly structured and spelled searches. Even Google Maps seems to be able to cope with some of the searches that stymied this other feature.
3am is not the busiest time of day for search. Nor is it the best for conversions. For organic traffic, this does not matter. Ranks do not change depending on the time of day or week in the search results. The same is not true for paid search.
Search activity and volume change over time, and most of the time, in predictable ways. There are patterns that repeat from day to day, from week to week and from year to year. These changes over time can be important for managing organic search engine marketing. Understanding how demand and interest change and when is important for planning site development and content.
Typically the cycles in demand that are important to search engine optimisation (SEO) are longer than those that matter in paid search (though updates like Caffeine have shortened these). Generating visibility for specific changes in search within the organic results is not as straightforward as a media buy.
Timing and effectiveness are limited by how appropriate the content is for the targeted queries, how successful promotional and linking activity was and how the search engines crawl and rank the content. Paid search does not have the same limitations.
Visibility, Productivity and Competitive Bidding
Paid search and display advertising platforms such as AdWords let advertisers manage their campaigns by hour of day and day of the week. How an optimised campaign will use these tools will depend on industry trends, how and when their target market uses search and their own objectives. Unfortunately there is usually more than one advertiser doing this.
Choosing when to push for more traffic and impression share on AdWords and other realtime bidding-based platforms is important. Cost per acquisition (CPA), click through rate (CTR) and conversion rate (CVR) are all good indicators for what is performing and what isn’t.
Another factor to take into consideration is competition. If a day or time works for you, it is likely that it would work just as well for your competitors, and be just as desirable to them as a result. Consequently, when a particular time or day stops performing as well as expected, it could be due to increased competetion rather than just the market. AdWords provides a number of metrics that make it possible to analyse for competitive pressure:
- Search impression share
- Average position
- Average cost per click (CPC)
Search impression share is the most straightforward of these: it does what it says. The information is available down to ad group level, and assuming these are tightly themed, it will give a good indication of what kind of share of voice you have within those query groups.
The other metrics do not directly measure competition, but they can show its effects. Average position is not a reliable metric. It represents an average of all the positions the ads have appeared in for the period, but gives no indication of spread. However, it can indicate large general movement. Changes in CPC and CTR are more reliable indications of competitive activity. Changes in CPC can signal changes in bidding and CTR can also indicate changes in position. Together these two metrics can indicate changes in competitor activity, barring other confounding factors.
The Why of Benchmarking
Monitoring changes within the account can only provide insights when compared to something. Benchmarking makes the difference between identifying a shift in the market and noise. Choosing what to benchmark campaign changes against will depend on what other information is available. Other campaigns that experience the same user behaviour and market similar products are one possibility; organic search traffic for the same kinds of terms is another covering a similar time period.
While there are a few ways to approach analysing and processing this information to create actionable insights, setting some kind of a benchmark matters. Because of AdWords’ nature, many of the changes in cost and behaviour are as likely to be caused by your competition as by changes made to the campaigns and changes in actual user behaviour. Consequently, it is important to be able to differentiate between each.
Event dates such as the one above seem to be another example of Google’s drive to providing a richer, more informative Search Engine Result Page (SERP). It certainly is interesting that this kind of information seems to have only just started to show up. Especially as earlier this week Google announced a great new tool for webmasters, the Data Highligher.
Now available through Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) the Data Highlighter makes it easier to help Google identify structured data on your site. For now the tool is only available for English language sites and for events related information like concerts, festivals, sporting events and festivals.
The Data Highlighter as it is rolled out will become a popular alternative to Schema.org. It will make some forms of structured data easier to implement while requiring fewer resources and it is included with one of Google’s own widely used tools.
Structured Data’s Slow Burn
Structured date in search isn’t new. Microformats have been around for a while and used by search engines to provide a richer search experience, Schema.org is simply the latest. When Schema.org was released it was overshadowed by Google+, which was announced at the same time.
Unsurprisingly as Google has increased the amount of information it is displaying directly in the search results, structured data has been attracting more and more attention. Google’s release of the Knowledge Graph, the inclusion of structured data preview tools and Bing’s own snapshot feature has certainly indicated an accelerating shift in how search engines serve their customers.
Decision Engines and Portals
Search is currently far more than just a list of links as Bing, Google and newer products such as Siri and Google Now are getting better able to answer a user’s question directly and without sending them to a different site or application. With the amount of information now available on the SERPs and the tools such as calculator’s and converters usable from the search bar, it is almost as if Google is becoming a portal.
For many stakeholders in search this is a good thing. Users get the information that they want easier and faster by avoiding poorly designed sites and obtuse navigation. Providing a better experience for searchers allows Google to maintain it’s position in the market, and by doing this means the search engine can provide their advertisers a large potential audience.